A Communication Dilemma of Irma-Proportions

Last weekend, millions of Floridians wiped store shelves of water and batteries, boarded up windows, filled sandbags, and charged phones to prepare for the first hit of hurricane season: Irma.

It was a scary time for many. Even the hurricane veterans among us felt worried as Irma’s heavy winds and rain swept up the state, bringing flash flooding and tornadoes with her. Some sought solace from the storm in local shelters. Others chose to “hunker down” with friends and family in their own homes. Thousands fled to states like Georgia and Tennessee, only to return and see the destruction Irma had left in their communities. 

About 15 million people were left without power in Florida, according to Duke Energy. Those lucky to have generators were able to minimize the impact, but many had to survive for almost a week without power. 

What I find funny is how the society phrases the dilemma: “survive without power.” As if power is necessary to survival, even though humans have flourished for centuries without it; as if the loss was worse than the actual hurricane itself. 

In the days after Irma, I saw a disheartening truth: technology handicaps us. 

It’s hard to admit. I know, even I don’t want to believe it. As I walked through Publix the other day, a table up front was set up with a surge protector. People filled every chair charging their phones, not saying a word to each other, consumed by the small screen in front of them. 

This is our handicap. 

Admittedly, technology can help with communication in many instances. Talking with a loved one in another state, for example. Technology also aids in crisis communication. By dialing three numbers, emergency responders can provide help in minutes. Text alerts also allow thousands of students to hear pertinent campus information instantly. 

But for all its good, what has technology stolen from us? 

The answer: genuine communication.

Research has described the ideal way to communicate, known as a “confirming communication climate.” This construct consists of recognition, acknowledgment, and endorsement. Recognition means to notice someone; acknowledgment to see their ideas and feelings, and endorsement to truly agree with them.

At each layer, the connection between people deepens, and the potential for bond development increases. But when technology enters the climate, even simple recognition is ripped away, just like a hurricane. We divert our attention away from the person, and towards the digital world in our hands. As a result, the speaker feels unvalued. We lose genuine communication. Technology leaves its category five destruction in what used to be a perfect, blue-skied communication climate. 

I notice this trend all too much. At restaurants, children and parents alike sit at the table in silence. Necks tilted, faces illuminated. The only sign of life is an occasional comment about how many likes an Instagram post got, a new Tasty recipe to try out, or a high score in solitaire. For hours, my friends and I will hang out without saying a word. Even my grandparents and great aunt, who just got their first smartphones, assume the tilted-head pose around each other. 

The key to fixing this is simple: put the technology away.

If you’re at work, stow it in a desk or briefcase.
If you’re at dinner, put in your purse or car.
If you’re in any situation that involves conversation, put it away.

Eventually, that handicap will cease to exist. You will understand others on a deeper level. You will no longer tie yourself to the nearest wall outlet or aux cord. Instead, you will reach the hearts of others. And nothing, not even a hurricane, will destroy the climate you’ve created.